Monday, 17 January 2011

Being Served - Elen Caldecott

Last year when I began my latest book I realised it would require research. It has historical elements that, in Bristol at least, are controversial. Actually, 'controversial' doesn't in any way cover it. The novel has, at its heart, a painting of a boy who was brought to England from the West Indies. He may, or may not be a slave. And I don't mean that in a 'the-author-knows-but-wants-to-leave-the-readers-guessing' way. I mean literally, there was a period in the late 18th, early 19th century when the status of slaves brought into England was a legal unknown. Judges made half-hearted rulings that got ignored anyway, each of them hoping some other case would set the precedent. As you can imagine, with such heart-wrenching material, I want to get as near to accurate as is possible with this story.

So, I went to the library.

At the time, I lived in Knowle. For those who don't know Bristol, Knowle is, well, rough as a badger's brillos. The library is in a shopping centre that is mostly pound shops, cheque-cashing shops and empty shops. The empty shops are particularly brilliant, they are boarded up with hoardings showing pictures of thin, vaguely Italian-looking women shopping with their NorthSouth bags. The nearest we get to that is thin, vaguely Italian-looking pizzas two-for-a-pound in Iceland bags.
I wasn't holding out much hope as I went to research the finer points of the international slave trade. I was an idiot. The library played a blinder.

As soon as I explained what I wanted the librarian went to their small non-fiction section and gave me the auto-biography of an 18th century slave who visited England,: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. She also produced a biography of a slave who lived much of his life in Bristol, Pero, The Life of a Slave in 18th century Bristol. There was also a general history of British ports and their role in the slave trade. These books were exactly what I needed.

At that time, I thought, wow, isn't it amazing that my tiny, local library should have three books on their shelves that are perfect for starting my research. Of course, the references and bibliographies of these books suggested more books for wider reading. I was able to order most of them from the Libraries West database for delivery within a week. To my local library.

Then, it occured to me that no, it wasn't that amazing; it's what libraries are for, to serve the interests of their local community. Bristol's relationship with the triangular trade is a huge and difficult part of the city's psyche. It is only to be expected that Bristol's inhabitants will want to learn about it. The library service buys accordingly and makes sure the people of Bristol have good access.

So, when half the libraries in the country are gone, and the ones that are left have a freeze on book-buying, and the librarians have all been replaced by work experience kids, how exactly will they serve their communities then? Just wondering.
Elen's Facebook Page


catdownunder said...

Last week one of the local library staff told me, quite casually, "Of course if we have to stop buying books altogether there is always the internet."
Our local libraries network is cutting back drastically on new material and telling people who want to research topics to "use the internet". It is seen as a substitute but the reality is that it is not and I doubt it ever can be. I certainly have no idea how to have multiple research volumes open on the screen at the same time!
I support your efforts to keep your local libraries in the strongest possible terms.

Elen Caldecott said...

Yes, I think it was Charlie who said this week 'wikipedia is a great place to start your research but a terrible place to end it.'
Of the books that I loaned that day, I ended up buying my own copy of Equiano's autobiography for about £6. The book on Pero is also reasonably priced, but the history is £26 in paperback, £70 hardback. And only Equiano's books has been published as an ebook. So, if it hadn't been for the library I would either have had to spend a load of money, or had to rely on the superficial history on the internet.

Louise44 said...

One of the difficulties of the internet (which in every other way I think is wonderful) is that it has degraded the quality of our research. In particular children are losing the experience of researching by seeking out sources, and crucially, judging their reliability. I was asked to judge a school competition a few years ago and the number of children who had simply printed pages off the internet, without relevance or understanding, was quite astonishing.
Libraries are places to learn to follow a trail. To catch a glimpse of an idea in one book and chase it down as it races through other volumes. I'm not against internet research but eventually you have to immerse yourself in genuine sources, whether first hand accounts or professional summaries. The internet offers too many amateur views with no way of differentiating for accuracy or quality, and many children seem not to realise this.
Our libraries are crucial in helping to develop independent research skills in kids. hunting in a library is one of the first steps in thinking for yourself.

Sue Purkiss said...

A very interesting and apposite post, Elen, and your book sounds fascinating.

Ellen Renner said...

Excellent example of why we need to retain and support our libraries. Real books and highly trained, professional librarians are more essential than ever in an age of technological revolution where we are flooded with information, none of it sifted or evaluated online. If we lose this resource, we won't get it back.

Just as worrying, school libraries are under threat and, as in this example, it's children and adults without access to books in the home who will suffer most. Closing libraries, or turning them into internet cafes, is one of the most socially regressive things a government can do.

michelle lovric said...

So glad to hear you are being served, Elen. Lovely post. Have you read Andrea Levy's The Long Song? It's about the ambiguous status of slaves in Caribbean even after so-called emancipation. It's a great book and won't feel like homework at all.

Elen Caldecott said...

Thanks, Michelle, I love her writing and I haven't read that.

KMLockwood said...

Thank you for this celebration of our lovely libraries - inspiration to keep fighting!

Ms. Yingling said...

I was very surprised at the state of UK libraries when I visited London and Ireland. I thought that they would be much better than the libraries in the US. Many of the libraries I visited were very small, but the young adult sections in all of them were very poorly stocked. I hope that UK librarians are working on advocacy to at least keep what is already there!